Anarchy and other Americanisms: Remembering the radical Irish community organizing tradition

As goes the comment section on, so goes the nation. Alright perhaps the odd coalition of “Sinn Fein number 1, Identity Ireland number 2, Anti-Vaccine Independent number 3” voters amassed on the slag heap beneath shoddy articles, that somehow gain new typos in the process of being copy pasted from the AP, is not necessarily a remarkable bellwether of the national political mood, but it can be indicative of something. In this sewage pit, only a couple of “sexy older women in your area” and “copy and paste this five times or your immersion will always be left on” posts away from being an outright discursive nuclear disaster zone, we can glean some things about the national political conversation from some of the particularly long lasting flecks of excrement that cling and dry to the surface from article to article. A particularly masochistic activity for me is to hop into the comments on any article that presents a radical left or even milquetoast liberal perspective on a social issue and look for examples of one particularly articulate and comprehensive Irish critique of the left analysis.

This extensive and cerebral critique involves accusing your opponent of being a “yank” who has imported into Irish political life and social discourse a point of view as American as the NFL or the inexplicable sunburn-baseball hat-fan pack combo they all seem to go in for. The easiest way to find these sorts of barstool objections is to search using the tag “#equality”, a subject that seems to arouse much ire and conspiracy in its commentariat.

A more extreme example claiming that Irish people supporting refugees is a CIA mind-control plot.

This criticism immediately tends to locate any Irish protest or equality movement as originating in some source entirely foreign to our own native cultures and traditions; Irish students infected by “American PC nonsense” or, at its most conspiratorial edges, representative of that pesky George Soros, funding political radicals across the world to the detriment of “ordinary, hard-working people with a bit of common sense”. Incidentally, George, if you’re reading this, my cheque is late this month and we really need to buy those kits we use to teach holy communion classes about how and why should become transgender.

Indeed, even many anarchists can locate the tradition of non-statist anti-capitalist organizing as not having much tradition in our country. We go clinging to the early syndicalist ITGWU and Jack White as though living on moisture beneath rocks in the middle of a historical and theoretical desert while listening with clenched teeth to Joe Higgins wonder aloud when Ireland will, in the words of Allen Ginsburg, “be worthy of your million Trotskyites”. But alongside the comment sections’ Paddy Power Enoch Powell for whom manager Mick and Senator Joe are tied for “greatest McCarthy of all time” we have missed the rich Irish tradition of community organizing in favour of social justice and against the state. It’s hard to blame us, given the simultaneous wounds of rampant cuts to the community sector and the depoliticizing of so many of these once defiant community development organisations over the years (1). And so many Irish leftists, able only to recognize victories for working people in the form of the beardy Russian vanguards or the welfarist social democracy won by the Labour movements of Western Europe, fail to see much of redeeming or revolutionary quality in the recent history of our nation, with its weak welfare state and dominance by the Church’s fascism adjacent vocationalism, save for those first sparkling revolutionary moments of 1916.

But for anarchists, or those who prefer their social progress to cohere on the basis of community direct action as opposed to red-and-grey social bureau-crats, this lack of popular energy being co-opted by the state does produce opportunities for far more interesting avenues of revolt. The anarchist anthropologist Pierre Clastres, author of Society against the State, observed that in post-colonial countries, emerging out of rich traditions of radical social norms, progressive action tended to take the form of municipal, community-based action without the Western European response desiring recourse to redistribution from a state, an entity in these countries associated not with seizeable or governance but with colonial violence. For our post-colonial country, still reeling from the echoing with the social order of Gaelic Tuatha’s untouched by Roman centralization (if you will allow me a bit of filthy Jungianism), much the same has been true. Powerful labour movements, despite early successes, did not create sturdy social democracies and social safety nets. State power in this country has been a more or less wholly reactionary entity in this country since its inception, staffed with Catholic conservatives, big farmers and anti-semitic civil servants.

But outside the bounds of the state the history of Irish radical social organisation is strong. In the 1980s when the people of Limerick saw recession devastate their city they did not bide their time and wait to vote for whatever bespectled Trotskyite might limply stand in the next election; they acted directly within their community. Groups of ordinary citizens, residents of some of the city’s and indeed the country’s most disadvantaged areas, like the Parish Group, the Anti-Water Rates campaign and the Social Action Against Unemployment in Limerick campaign banded together and utilized direct action to affect change locally in defeating regressive taxation and providing resources and opportunities to their fellow residents. Recognising the disdain with which the Irish state treated them they returned the hostility, having more recourse to their own local and democratic structures than to those of a parliament that seemed cold and distant to their concerns. They followed in the footsteps of organisations such as Muintir na Tíre which in the 40s and beyond provided vital relief and organizational supports to disadvantaged communities in the country (2).

Of course there is a spectre haunting over all this talk of radical Irish community action: the shadow of high steeples and pointy hats. The Catholic Church and the geographical and demographic focus of the Catholic parish was very often a facilitator of this action and its record in Irish society has been…well, progressive would not exactly be the term. However it is vital to recognize that although movements may, by historical necessity or convenience, grow out of consecrated ground, they still have the potential for radical social action. One need only look to the example of the Sandinista church in Nicaragua, with its liberation theology and anti-imperialist bona fides to show this. But the squealing masses of country’s comment sections, who suckle at the teat of Gavin McInnes’ Twitter feed cry: “You’ve done it again! That horrible foreign stuff! But this time with the worse, brown America where they speak Spanish! Lord above”! To their continued squealing I offer the example of Father James McDyer, an airy fairy social reformer from that most foreign of territories: Donegal. Seeing the way his community, like many rural communities in the country, had been devastated by state neglect and lack of consistent industrial employment he decided to take up action. He rejected the state-backed solution of wooing foreign corporations with the dance of the seven veils in the form of sultry subsidies and instead emphasized direct action in effected communities, establishing community groups and workers’ cooperatives to combat unemployment and resource crises. Even the holy joes can put a foot right every now and then it seems.

Community and municipal engagement is as much a part of Irish culture as “Mam with the wooden spoon” or “A cocktail made of club orange and cheese and onion Tayto”, or whatever is the share-worthy soundbite that erases those most radical elements of our tradition and culture today. Across the country people work themselves to the bone but will always find time to get involved with their local tidy towns committee, GAA club or whatever initiative allows them to show the pride they have in their community and have a sneaky pint with their neighbours. The Irish will perhaps always regard the state, and that nebulous bar stool enemy “The Government”, with a naked hostility descended from its days as an institution of the crown and the pitch cap. But where the state socialists mourn the lack of a strong social democratic state tradition, we anarchists should see opportunity. As the democratic projects of the 21st century, from Chiapas in Mexico to Cooperate Jackson to Mississippi to experiments in radical municipalism in Barcelona, increasingly reject the notion of “seizing the state”, the Irish tradition which is embedded in localism and community action has an incredibly radical potential. The naysayers, those who cast Shell to Sea protestors and college students fighting restrictive abortion laws as crypto-Yank provocateurs, are precisely the ones who are aliens to their own history. If anarchism is to have its moment in Irish history, let it draw on the rushing wellspring of our community organizing tradition, and seize on the grunting that “all Irish politics is local politics” with the roaring refutation: “Keep it local, make it radical”.-

By David O’ Donoghue

(1) Kelleher P, O’ Neill C. The Systematic Destruction of the Community Development, Anti-Poverty and Equality Movement (2002-2015)

(2) Devereux, E.Negotiating Community: The Case of a Limerick Community Development Group In: Chris Curtin, Hastings Donnan and Thomas Wilson (eds.) Irish Urban Cultures. Belfast: Institute for Irish Studies (eds).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s